Monday 29 September 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - For Real

The last few blogposts (like this one and this one) have about working on other people's sitcoms. And  I thought it might be useful to talk to someone who's been experiencing all these shenanigans for the first time. So I talked to Lucien Young, who's been working on Siblings on BBC3 which is, in some ways, the BBC3 version of Sykes (Google it!). Siblings has just be recommissioned for a second series. I first met Lucien when he was recommended by a producer as someone who'd be good to take part in a gag pass for Series 2 of Bluestone 42. He was great to have in the room, and introduced me to the idea of writing '(Google it!)' into scripts. For which I thank him. Here goes. My questions in italics, obviously.

Hello, Lucien. How have you ended up working in situation comedy - rather than starting your own Youtube channel, doing stand-up or writing on panel games?  Were there particular shows growing up that influenced this?

I've been obsessed with sitcoms since before I could understand most of the jokes. I think it was Frasier repeats on Channel 4 that got me hooked -- when I was thirteen, I wrote my own Frasier spec script and posted it to NBC. No reply. Still bitter about that. And The Simpsons was huge for me. As long as I can remember, I've been watching films like The Godfather, Cape Fear and The Shining, and realising I already knew the four-fingered, yellow version.

What is it about the form that attracts you to it?
I guess what's exciting is that sitcom is infinitely elastic, but also has a strong underlying structure to guide you. Broadly speaking, you know that your characters are going to enter a strange situation, which will build and build in craziness, before some sort of resolution that takes them back to (roughly) their original state. But how that situation develops and resolves is completely up to you. So a really good sitcom can manage to be comfortingly familiar and thrillingly weird at the same time.

How did you end up working on Siblings? What was your involvement initially? How did you generate story ideas? Did you pitch into other episodes?

Siblings was created by the exceptional writer Keith Akushie, who I've known since university and worked with on sketches, and in Edinburgh. I'd also had meetings with Bwark, the production company who make Siblings and The Inbetweeners, so they'd read some of my scripts. When BBC Three commissioned the show, based on Keith's pilot, Bwark brought in Daran Johnson, Joe Parham and me to help with ideas for the remaining five episodes.

During these writing days, we operated a lot like a US team-written show, with Keith as Head Writer. We would all come along with rough premises and talk them though as a group. Then, if one seemed particularly exciting, we'd flesh it out, getting more and more specific and coming up with scenes and then the beats within those scenes. Because we had Keith's pilot script in front of us, we had a strong idea of what the main characters (Dan and Hannah) were like, and the general tone of the show.

I'd argue massively in favour of the team-written approach. Aside from the obvious advantage of having more minds on any problem, you also find yourself collectively coming up with ideas that none of you would've had individually. And, as Head Writer, Keith was able to guide the creative process and make sure the results had his own distinctive tone.

Plus, it's way more fun being in a room with funny people and going for burritos at lunch than it is writing on your own, wrestling with a sense of inadequacy and trying not to look at Facebook every five minutes.

I guess you had to produce (or co-write) a detailed outline of an episode. How was that? Had you done it much before? What was harder or easier than expected about this bit of the process?

By the end of our team-writing weeks, we had five detailed 'beat sheets' from which to develop outlines for each episode. Keith took two of them and the remaining three were split between Joe Parham, Daran Johnson and me. The outlines (which came to roughly 20 pages) were then sent to BBC Three for notes before we started our first drafts.

The time we'd spent talking the stories through as a room meant that, producing your outline, you had a heap of material to draw upon, which was ideal. The trickiest part of writing an outline is it's tough to explain, in theory, why something's going to be funny. That's also the best thing about outlines: you can't hide behind gags when a scene doesn't justify itself structurally. If you can make a fairly straightforward description of what's going to happen in each scene entertaining, you know you're going to have a better time writing that first draft. I'll always do a pretty detailed outline before starting my own pilot scripts.

What was it like writing the first draft? How long did it take? Did you find some scenes or beats just didn’t work when you came to write them? What did you do to fix them?

By the time I did my first draft, I'd already produced a detailed outline, and had our ideas from the room to work with. So I'd say I spent about a week on it. I generally find it's best to devote a lot of time to planning, then come up with the actual draft as quickly as possible. It helps keep things fairly natural and fresh, and often the first idea to pop into your head is the funniest. Then you can go back and polish.

The stuff that needed fixing was mainly structural -- for instance, when there were two scenes doing the work of one. If I feel uneasy reading a scene back, that's usually because it's not pushing the story forward, and I've tried to paper over the cracks with jokes/weirdness. Most of the time, the solution is to return to the outline and make sure every part justifies its place in the wider story.

What was it like getting notes?
I guess, deep down, every writer wants to be told they're a beautiful genius who can do no wrong and should be working less hard, if anything. Notes inevitably go against this, so you never exactly relish them.

That said, the ones we got on Siblings were really useful and attuned to the show's sensibility. You're going to want to do a second draft anyway, so obviously it's better to do that with feedback from smart people who spend all their time thinking about comedy. Writing for TV is collaborative and notes are a vital part of that collaboration.

And even if you disagree with a specific note, it can still raise questions that end up being massively helpful to the script.

Did you have to cut favourite jokes/beats/moments?
I don't remember having to lose anything particularly painful at the scripting stage, though a bunch of stuff went during editing (which sort of functions as a final redraft).

They made absolutely the right calls -- pace is 100x more important than preserving every punchline you're proud of -- but there are certain lines I miss. When three minutes need to be cut, you can't get around the fact that exposition is necessary and individual jokes aren't. I guess the solution is to make your exposition as funny as possible.

How many drafts did you do?
Once I'd submitted my first draft, it was sent to Keith to do his pass. We then went over it together a few times to arrive at the final shooting script. Which was fun and a great way to avoid comedy writer tunnel-vision.

Were you around much for the filming?
I spent an unjustifiable amount of time on set -- tried to be there on most of the days they were filming my episode, and on special occasions like the wheelchair basketball match. The experience was genuinely thrilling to me. It's so surreal to see some weird idea you and your mates blurted out a few months ago has been brought to life by a team of exceptionally talented professionals. I felt this most profoundly when they brought in the hydraulic dildo machine for episode four.

Also, I was able to help with a couple of on-set line tweaks, though obviously you can't go crazy with that, given the colossal time pressure everyone's under.

Overall, how has this experience changed you as a writer? Essentially, what did you learn - and what do you feel you still need to learn?
Being in the Siblings writers' room has definitely affected my approach. We're constantly discussing tone, characterisation, what makes jokes work, and examining story structure from every angle. So I've learned a lot from that. Most of all, it impressed upon me how helpful it is to have a really solid outline before you start Draft One. Also, going on set and finding out more about the technical side of making TV has been really useful.

What I love about writing sitcom is that it's an endless challenge -- every time you learn something, it makes you realise how much more there is to know. One thing I want to focus on in future is how to build a small story into something crazy, while keeping every step believable and taking the audience with you.

Lucien, thank you. When you are wealthy and successful with your own hit show, please offer me work.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Script

So, if you’ve been involved in generating ideas for someone else's sitcom, or been part of a gag pass, or the show creator is your brother. Whatever. You've been asked to write an episode. Now what?

How does it Work?
It will differ from show to show, but most likely you’ll need to pitch a load of ideas for your episode to the show creator, head writer and/or producer. They’ll probably be offering you one episode in the first instance, so you’ll need to pitch at least half a dozen really good ideas that suit the show. Ideally, a main plot, a sub plot and a little running joke so all the characters are involved. Nothing too detailed, just a thumbnail sketch but ideally with a couple of decent jokes to sweeten the pudding. Overall, maybe a paragraph or two for each episode idea, so you’ve got about two pages of ideas to talk about.

For this, you’ll need to have come up with ideas for 20 or 30 main plots, sub plots and runners  - and chosen your best, and work out which main plot goes with which subplot. Think really carefully about this and make sure your ideas work well for the characters and show you’re pitching for, rather than the generic ‘Surprise Birthday party’ idea that could happen in any sitcom. And avoid bringing in outside characters. More on that here and especially here.

Grubby Keyboard
(made grubbier by visual effects)
It may be they like the main plot from one but a subplot from another and ask you to combine those instead. Great. They’ve seen something they like and you’re off to the races. And by ‘races’, I mean hours alone in a room in front of a grubby keyboard.

You might be asked to work out the story in detail with other writers in a writers’ room. This is what happened when I wrote of episode of My Family. Or you may have to do it by yourself and present it, and then meet up to discuss it with the producer, creator and script editor, which is what happened when I wrote episodes of My Hero.

You may need to rewrite your outline a few times before you get a tick in a box from the producer and told to go and write it. It can be frustrating, but frankly, there’s just no point writing the script until the outline is right, especially on someone else’s show. Also, you may have a tight deadline and outlines tend to help hit those. Charging off on an unplanned flight of fancy in script might be fun, but you might end up in having to throw it away and starting again, which is no fun when the deadline is tomorrow. Or yesterday.

The Fun Bit, In Theory
You’ll probably have a couple of weeks to actually write the episode, which should be enough, given the detail of your outline. This is the bit where you really feel like a writer, and the years of slog and rejection melt away for a week or two. You’re writing an episode of telly. And being paid for it. Great. Enjoy it. This doesn’t happen much unless you’re called Roy Clarke.

Ask for a copy of one of their regular scripts so you can get the formatting right, so you’re using their house style. If they use Microsoft Word – and you don’t have Word, for some weird reason, buy Word. Likewise Final Draft. These are basic work tools that you need to do your job – which you are being paid to do. And it’s tax-deductible. I’m often surprised at how reluctant new writers can be to buy the basic tools of the trade and use free versions of odd applications downloaded from the Web. Don’t ask  ‘Can I send it as an rtf?’ or whatever, because you’ll look like an idiot. Because you are an idiot. (Too much?)

Asking is Fine
Some bits of your outline won’t work as you try to write them, in which case fix them. Earn your money. But if you get really stuck, and you've tried everything, and it’s just not working, there’s no disgrace in shouting for help. Talk to the producer or the script editor. They know the show much better than you and may well be much more experienced. They’d rather you asked for help and hit the deadline rather than having a teary unusable mess handed to them on the day of reckoning.

Last Pass
And here’s what I do. I aim to finish my draft a couple of days before the deadline, so I can forget about it for a day. Then I’ll print it out, go take it to a cafĂ© with a pen and read it, making notes, thinking of better jokes and trying to find cuts. If I do this on paper without my laptop, I find can read it better, and don’t try to fix everything the moment I see a problem. Read it through, makes some notes, then open up the draft and make the changes.

Trim it, prune it, tighten it. Don’t leave it baggy and let them decide which bits they like. I did that once. Rookie Mistake. And I won’t do it again. (I wrote about it here).

Then they’ll have notes. Brace yourself. More on that here. But bear in mind in this case – this is their show. You’re being paid to write something you didn’t come up with and ultimately don’t carry the can for, even though your name’s on the script. They can’t force you to rewrite anything you don’t want to, but you can be fired, although this really doesn’t happen very often. And bear in mind they’re shooting lots of episodes that you don’t know about, have a relationship with the cast, crew and commissioners that you don’t fully understand, so notes may have all kinds of odd reasons that make sense to them, but don’t to you.

If you’re not sure about a note, and it sounds confusing, or downright silly – politely ask for clarification, so you can give them the script that they want, and that you’re happy with. Then rewrite. And then there may be more notes. And more rewriting.

At some point, you’ll be able there when the cast read it aloud, which is terrifying. And we’ll cover that next time.